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What is neutral about language?

HannahB's picture

Chimamanda Adiche’s talk “The Danger of a Single Story” spoke to the discomfort I have recently wrestled with in terms of my own upbringing as a middle-class, white girl; my battle to acknowledge the single story the media, my teachers, our government, religion and so many other facets of my life have taught me unintentionally. Whether it be on a global scale such as Adiche’s experience with expectations of a single African story and the token “third-world woman” too often noted by anthropologists or at the local level, one school to the next, via class or color, the single story does exist and is used to create structural barriers, while simultaneously allowing those in power to happily claim moral neutrality at the hands of a biased system. Lemke’s reading spoke to this juxtaposition, showing how language standardization has been assumed both necessary and desirable, creating a means to attain and justify power that is neither fair nor essential: “The policy of language standardization seems culturally and politically neutral only if we deny that differences in linguistic codes have evolved to reflect differences in the lifeways, social practices, and interests of different communities and social groups” (Lemke, 2). Lemke’s point here and throughout the article is critical, acknowledging that an emphasis on written standard English, a strain that is not spoken or used by anyone, creates a divide and gives an unfair advantage to those whose dialect is closest to the written word—typically those already in power. While the articles and talk for class speak to a valuable truth and certainly challenged my conceptions of literacy and the ability to have many languages/dialects in compatibility, ultimately I am still left uncertain as to what is the next move. Speech, as noted, is going to vary regardless but the written word is where real change can or cannot occur. Even reading books written from different dialects has been done and is a move in the right direction. My question though is what about the grammar lessons? When it comes to what we learn in a lesson, not necessarily what we read or speak, what then should be taught to combat the single story? How can it be taught, specifically in America, successfully? Furthermore, on a larger cultural level, “Standard English” is still highly valued as a sign of cultural capital, in order to fully accept and embrace the varied dialects and languages of the world and the neighborhood, first we have to convince everyone, make everyone buy into the story that all are equal. We have to upend the hierarchy, whether that is in a first grade classroom, at a job interview or when looking at a president. We are not there yet.




alesnick's picture

theory of change?

Interesting and important! I would like to read more of your writing about how change happens -- do we need to achieve total change to change things?  Could you link this to a specific experience of yours, to something perhaps in our travels coming up?